Monthly Archives: December 2005

Happy New Year!

waka waka waka wishes all of you happiness and good health, and good luck in 2006.

Ebony Moon

The new Moon of December 31st will be the second one this month; the first having been on December 1st. When two full Moons occur in the same calendar month, it’s called a “Blue Moon”, but till now there has been no name for this inverse phenomenon. The folks at Spaceweather.com asked for suggestions for their readers, and the winner was “Ebony Moon”. Like Blue Moons, Ebony Moons happen about once every two-and-a-half years. The next one will be in August of 2008.

Jetsam

As I was walking home from the kwoon this evening, having spent a pleasant few hours first enlightening my students as to the subtleties of the “crane’s wing” and later practicing the Ng Lung Ba Gwa Cheung, I noticed some books lying in the street, about to be ruined by the rain. I took a closer look, and what I found was the Sixth Edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, a fabulous resource published in 1975, and what appears to be a first-edition hardcover copy of Lewis Copeland’s The World’s Great Speeches (from Pericles to Roosevelt),published in 1942.

How can anyone just throw such treasures overboard? Onto the shelf they go.

Seeker

Mullah Nasrudin was on his hands and knees in the street. A friend saw him, and came over to ask what he was up to.

“Mullah! What are you doing?”

“I’ve lost my key.”

“Well, where did you last see it?”

“In my study.”

“So why are you looking for it out here?”

“Because the light’s better here, of course!”

Pentimento

Educational and psychological theories of the mid-20th century saw the human brain as an infinitely flexible learning machine, with no “factory presets”. But the picture that is now emerging of our mental apparatus is of a suite of prewired cognitive modules, located in various areas of the brain, each of which has been shaped by natural selection for some useful task. These modules provide us with a common a priori framework for organizing our model of the world, and each module contributes an intuitive description of some aspect of our environment.

Arms and the Mind


“Just as a monkey roaming through the forest grabs hold of one branch, lets that go and grabs another, then lets that go and grabs still another, so too that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night.”

(Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 595)

Merry Christmas

To all of you. May your homes be havens of peace and love, may you grow in wisdom and understanding, and may fortune smile upon you in 2006.

-Malcolm

Logic and Faith III: Havlicek Steals the Ball

There are many in the scientific community – some of its most prominent spokespersons – who seem to have embraced a rather militant form of atheism. Richard Dawkins seems to be the most visible, but there are many others.

I used to be a strongly committed atheist myself, but my viewpoint has softened, and I would categorize myself now as a curious agnostic. One of the reasons that I abandoned the atheist position is the simple fact that reason itself is silent on the question of God’s existence. Efforts have been made to put faith in God onto a solid naturalist or philosophical foundation, but the fact remains that there is still no way to compel either belief in or denial of the existence of God.

Arms and The Man

One of the things that people who dislike George Bush often mention as something that particularly bothers them is what they call his “swagger”. I too have found myself vaguely irritated by his carriage, without realizing what it was that bothered me. I’ve now put my finger on it.

Actual Science

Science, the official organ of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, has published its Top Ten list of scientific breakthroughs for 2005. The winners are:

Sick Transit

This transit strike has the city clenched and writhing like a spider stuck by a pin. Businesses are withering, traffic is packed solid from river to river, municipal and union officials are locked in a snarling impasse, while Gotham’s hapless and frozen workforce staggers to and fro across the city’s bridges in their hundreds of thousands. And all of this four days before Christmas.

New York is rightly renowned for taking these things in stride, but this is going to get old in a hurry.

Box of Chocolates

One of my favorite left-clicks in all of cyberspace is WikiPedia’s Random Article link.

Checking ID

The campaign by Biblical literalists to have their mythology masquerade as science in the public schools has been dealt another setback. In a welcome and much-needed decision, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones has struck down the Dover Township, PA school board’s attempt to smuggle “Intelligent Design” into the biology curriculum.

You can read the judge’s opinion here.

Derailed

Well, the bus-and-subway strike is on. New York depends on mass transit more than any other city in the country, and this is going to be very bad indeed, especially given the timing.

Birds of a Feather

From Hans Zinsser’s scholarly and delightful book Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever comes the following:

More than any other species of animal, the rat and mouse have become dependent on man, and in doing so they have developed characteristics which are amazingly human. In the first place, like man, the rat has become practically omnivorous. It eats anything that lets it and – like man – devours its own kind, under stress. It breeds in all seasons and – again like man – it is most amorous in the springtime. It hybridizes easily, and, judging by the strained relationship between the black and the brown rat, develops social or racial prejudices against this practice. The sex proportions are like those among us. Inbreeding takes place readily. The males are larger, the females fatter. It adapts itself to all types of climates. It makes ferocious war upon its own kind, but has not, as yet, become nationalized. So far it has still stuck to tribal wars – like man before nations were invented. If it continues to ape man as heretofore we may, in a few centuries, have French rats eating German ones, or Nazi rats attacking Communist or Jewish rats; however, such a degree of civilization is probably not within the capabilities of any mere animal.

The book is lighthearted, erudite, and without question the best book about vermin and pestilence you have ever read.

The enemy is the gramophone mind

I expect that most of you have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but you may not have seen the preface that he wrote for a Ukrainian edition. The preface was censored in England, and was not added to most English translations. I certainly hadn’t seen it before my friend Duncan Werner sent me a link to it today.

Bad, Bad, Bad

President Bush yesterday owned up to having authorized the NSA to monitor the private communications of US citizens without first having to obtain a court order. I realize we are at war, but this is wrong, and I am angry about it. I am angry not only because it is exactly the sort of thing that goes on in the Orwellian police states we are supposedly setting ourselves in opposition to, but also because I have at considerable social cost defended the Bush administration’s foreign policy for years now, while he can’t manage to keep up his end of the bargain by not appearing at every opportunity to be exactly the conniving and hubristic autocrat his hysterical opponents claim him to be.

Obviously his political foes will seize hungrily upon this. I think it is going to be a very serious problem for him, and rightly so.

When Transit Strikes

As I write, Gotham is on the edge of its seat. We are waiting to see if the transit workers, whose contract expired twenty-eight minutes ago, are going to walk out. If they do, it will be disruptive, to say the least. Estimates of the cost to the city’s economy start, I believe, at around four hundred million dollars a day. It couldn’t come at a worse time for the city’s merchants, of course, some of whom make their entire annual profit in the Yuletide purchasing spasm.

“Rarely Pure and Never Simple”

I ran across this, from Peggy Noonan, in this morning’s WSJ newsletter:

Howard Dean, that human helium balloon ever resistant to the gravity of mature judgment, said of the administration that they lied us into war. He left no doubt that he meant they did it deliberately and cynically. But there seems to me a thing that is blindingly obvious, and yet I’ve never seen it remarked upon. It is that an administration that would coldly lie us into Iraq is an administration that would lie about what was found there. And yet the soldiers, searchers and investigators who looked high and low throughout Iraq made it clear they had found nothing, an outcome the administration did not dispute and came to admit. But an administration that would lie about reasons would lie about results, wouldn’t it? Or try to? Yet they were candid.

Wouldn’t it be good if our serious journalists and historians looked into what happened to weapons that Saddam once used and once had? He abused weapons inspectors who came looking, acting like a man who had a great deal to hide. And wouldn’t it be good for our serious journalists and historians to look into exactly how it is that faulty intelligence, of such a crucial nature and at such a crucial moment, came to America and Britain? It is still amazing. Oh, for journalists and historians who would look only for truth and not merely for data that justify their politics and ideology.

Podhoretz On Iraq

Norman Podhoretz, one of the msot articulate representatives of the “neoconservative” school of political thought, had an excellent article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. In it he likens the “panic” among the Left regarding our efforts in Iraq to the “sunshine patriots” of the Revolutionary War. The term refers to those who began to question and undermine the wisdom of the venture after it became apparent that it might actually be a long and arduous struggle.

Deep Blue

I live in one of the “bluest” neighborhoods of one of the bluest cities in the nation, the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. It is a lovely place, with splendid Victorian architecture, and it adjoins one of the world’s great city parks, Prospect Park, which is right at the end of my block. We have a fascinating, complex mix of educated and creative people here. The neighborhood prides itself on tolerance and inclusion.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I love the English language. I love its immense vocabulary, largest of them all. I love its rich history of assimilation, which began with multiple invasions of the Scepter’d Isle itself, continued with the Earth-girdling expansion of the Empire, and which, with English now the international language of science and commerce, shows no sign of abatement.

It is a tricky, idiosyncratic tongue, full of broken rules and irregular spellings, in which the same strings of letters can take a bewildering variety of pronunciations (consider cough, though, through, plough, and rough). But from the pen or tongue of a master – a writer such as Shakespeare, Churchill, Joyce, Nabokov, Perelman, Tennyson, Austen, Twain, Wodehouse, Dickens, Pope, Swift, Shelley – the English language can lilt, evoke, command, arouse, describe, amuse, exalt, gladden, inform, seduce, provoke, abash, and delight with incomparable beauty, power and nuance.

But the icing on the cake is Cockney rhyming slang.

Personality

Here in the Western world, we tend to lionize those with the “big” personalities – the people who, brimming with confidence and untrammeled by self-doubt, bask in the glow of public attention as they go about their important business. They are the envy of all, and serve as models for the aspiring. Even the word “lionize” is telling – we admire the lion for his fierceness, courage, and power, but most of all for his dominance. The lion gets what he wants. Should we, then, be lions too, if we intend to get what we want? The answer is not so simple: it all depends on what we want.

Wanted:

I’ve been distracted by worldly matters for a day or two, so all I have to offer tonight is yet another of those parasitic posts in which I merely present a link to some interesting spot on the Web. Rest assured that some tasty confections are on the stove.

Today’s referent is the indispensible Dead or Alive. Just go take a look. No further explanation necessary.

Oral Gratification

Here’s an interesting site that I recently happened upon:

An Illustrated Glossary of Rhetorical Terms

It’s all there, from “accumulation” (figure wherein a rhetor gathers scattered points and lists them together) to “zeugma” (use of a word to modify or govern two or more words although its use is grammatically or logically correct with only one). Here are some other goodies:

Please Don’t Spoil My Day,
I’m Miles Away

A common idea in esoteric teachings is the notion that we live our lives too mechanically, that we are in fact in a kind of waking sleep. The notion seems silly at first. Of course we aren’t asleep! Sleep is what we do at night in our beds. During our busy days we are conscious, we are active, we are engaged. But consciousness is a tricky business, and one of its sneakier properties is that it can’t see its own edges. To put that another way, it takes consciousness to be aware of consciousness, and that means that unconsciousness cannot be aware of itself.

Fried Rice

Our Secretary of State is feeling the heat over in Europe, where many a garment is being rent over our use of “secret” places of detention. I certainly agree that we must not violate the very principles we stand for in order to defend them, but there is a moral calculus involved that is not as simple as our disingenuous “allies” would have us think they think.

Down to Earth

My friend Duncan Werner has sent me a link to a brief but outstandingly informative article that I thought I must share with you all. It offers helpful, practical advice about what to do if you suddenly find yourself free-falling from the stratosphere.

Fetchez la Vache

Here is an interesting item from the 1010 WINS website. The headline reads:

Jogging Song Offends Relatives of Inmates

According to the story,

More than 50 recruits and their trainers jogged in formation past the jail last week singing: “Jailbirds, jailbirds, look and see. You’re locked up and we’re free.”

Relatives, who were in the jail parking lot, say they were shocked.

I agree that the doggerel in question scans poorly, but I hardly consider myself shocked. After all, if these recruits had the lyrical skill to be successful poets, they wouldn’t have to be out there jogging in the first place.

You Still Here?

John Kerry is at it again. The lugubrious, thatch-crowned Ent, whom readers may recall bloviating on all sides of every issue during last year’s depressing presidential campaign, was on “Face the Nation” yesterday, accusing US soldiers of “terrorizing” ordinary Iraqis, and “breaking sort of the customs of the–of–the historical customs, religious customs.”

Selection Pressure

There is a heartening item in today’s New York Times: the creation myth known as Intelligent Design is having a tough time taking root. The ID movement’s complete and unsurprising lack of any scientific agenda is apparently beginning to catch up with it.

Waking Up is Hard to Do

There are some new and interesting threads unwinding over at Bill Vallicella’s website, the Maverick Philosopher. Currently under examination are “mystical” teachings, in particular Buddhism. But in particular there was one little post, seemingly unrelated, that caught my eye. In this brief piece Bill presents a lamentably problematic question: should we think for ourselves?

The problem is that if we do, we are unlikely to find and correct our errors. But unquestioning submission to authority is an obvious mistake also, as witness the horrors of Nazism. What to do?

I think that the mystical traditions have something to say about this question.

Chess!

I love chess. I’ve been playing since I was just a little boy. I’m no master, but I can play a decent game, and every now and then I have played an excellent one.

Five and Seven

It is easy for us to bustle though our busy lives without pausing to reflect that so much of our familiar and comfortable world was not created by us, but bequeathed to us by those who lived and died long before we took our cue to strut briefly upon the stage. Here in Gotham one tends to take the city itself for granted, as if it were given feature of the natural world, but if one stops to consider that every last brick, every nail, every floorboard, every window, every doorknob, every layer of paint in every one of the city’s innumerable structures, from the meanest toolshed to the loftiest tower, was carefully put in its place by some human hand, the scale of one’s indebtedness to those who went before us is almost ungraspable in its immensity. To these multitudes, almost all of them nameless and forgotten, we owe nearly everything – our cities, our nations, our languages, our religions, our music, our literature, our science, our mathematics, our art, our culture, and even the very bodies that we inhabit. I think it is worthwhile to dwell on this astonishing fact every so often.

From my remarkable friend George Beke, who might best be described as a cultural archeologist, a tireless scholar of the symbolic and esoteric artifacts of bygone times, comes an extraordinary insight into one of the most familiar features of our common cultural framework – the days of the week.

Happy Birthday

Today, November 30, was Winston Churchill’s birthday. He would have been 131.

Like many, I regard Winston Churchill as perhaps the greatest man of the twentieth century. He alone sounded the tocsin as Germany rearmed. His measureless optimism and indomitable spirit gave the British the sinew to stand alone against the Nazis after his warnings went unheeded. His ringing oratory sustained the fighting spirit of a battered nation. His literary output, and his incomparable command of his beloved language, would make him a towering figure even had he confined himself solely to writing. His six-volume history, The Second World War, is unique in all of literature – a spellbinding account of one of mankind’s greatest struggles, written not just by a gifted historian, but by the leader of a dauntless nation, and the architect of civilization’s ultimate victory.

Sign of the Times

Looking over the science section of the New York Times yesterday I found the following response to an article about hypnosis (sixth letter down):

To the Editor:

Re “This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis”: The first thing that came to mind when I read that some people are susceptible to suggestion is the trance some religious fundamentalists get into. The article goes on to say that suggestion changes what people see, hear, feel and believe to be true.

That would explain the apparent contradiction in our most recent presidential election, where logic seemed to be turned on its head.

Was that 10 to 15 percent who could have been in a hypnotic trance enough to turn around an election and in essence undermine (undermind) the democratic process?

Mark Gretch
Raleigh, N.C.

What idiotic, insulting, execrable drivel.

Re “This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis”: The first thing that came to mind when I read that some people are susceptible to suggestion is the trance some religious fundamentalists get into. The article goes on to say that suggestion changes what people see, hear, feel and believe to be true.

That would explain the apparent contradiction in our most recent presidential election, where logic seemed to be turned on its head.

Was that 10 to 15 percent who could have been in a hypnotic trance enough to turn around an election and in essence undermine (undermind) the democratic process?

Mark Gretch
Raleigh, N.C.

What idiotic, insulting, execrable drivel.